he Internet run amok is new. So is instant communication, the proliferation of unfiltered opinion and the possibility of feeding and processing instantaneous political information. These are all truly novel developments that are quickly altering the face and pace of an increasingly participatory society.
What is not new however is the belief that the latest election is history’s most important. Each generation wants a leg up on its predecessor. Each seeks a watershed moment. With the election of Barack Obama, 21st century American deservedly staked claim on such a moment.
But Obama’s powerful ascendance, while deeply rousing and racially unprecedented, actually fits within a time-honored political framework. It is a classic rejoinder to a crippled two-term administration — in this case a Republican one — that lately has presided over little but economic turmoil and war.
On three occasions in the last half-century, American voters have responded to such bleak circumstances by engineering tidal shifts and drafting new and untested figures in an effort to reshape the optimism on which the national fabric depends.
Though Obama’s mixed race heritage importantly breaches the presidency’s color line, the history made in this election may actually be of a different kind.
The public architecture of politics has changed radically. Never has mass media hyperbole (abetted by the Web) so effectively legislated a campaign’s pace. Never have the trappings of a national vote been so at one with the audience-hungry needs of mainstream entertainment. The election process has been transformed into a badgering poll-a-minute reality show putting words such as “historic” and “groundbreaking” at the mercy of efforts to heighten dramatic effect.
Presidential candidates are actors in a civic passion play with the storyline, both comic and grave, in constant flux. Their movement satisfies a deep lust for public catharsis. It’s a uniquely American show, sentimental and sincere.
In this regard, the Illinois senator’s vitally important victory deserves comparison to elections of similar magnitude.
Since World War II, American voters have been faithful and impatient in near-equal measure. They’ve also demonstrated an uncanny knack for delivering bombshell verdicts. “Cajolery, bullying, persuasion, promise” — those are the words The New York Times chose to describe the candidates: In 1960.
That year, established Republican Vice President Richard Nixon ran against liberal Democrat John F. Kennedy, a relative newcomer to the national scene.
Though hardly endearing, Nixon offered continuity following war hero Dwight Eisenhower’s eight years of stable Republican rule. Nixon was a California Protestant with an veteran Capital Hill background and a reputation for ruthlessness. He was countered by Kennedy, a well-spoken and witty 42-year-old Catholic from a patrician Massachusetts family whose well-connected father was as cunning as Nixon was callous. Kennedy’s Catholicism was frequently referred to as the “underground issue,” since openly discussing its hindrance was considered uncouth. Men dominated the press corps, as did their deferential mores.
Kennedy’s breathless victory — despite losing California, Ohio and Florida — owed a debt to Adlai Stevenson’s decade-old faithful. Stevenson was the Lear-like Democrat (Kennedy’s Hillary) crushed twice by the Eisenhower steamroller. Two weeks before the 1960 vote, veteran political correspondent Arthur Krock expressed the kind of elliptical presaging that defined that non-confrontational era. “The personality of a successful candidate for president,” he wrote, “has been the dominant factor in his election whenever it seemed to the voters to promise fulfillment of their desire for strong leadership of the nation and the government.”
Despite aches and pains, Kennedy had personality to spare.
Undecided voters went with the young Democrat’s “get American moving again” slogan over Nixon’s staid pledge to maintain Eisenhower’s emphasis on “peace and prosperity.” Concern about Kennedy’s lack the experience (the Cold War threat loomed large) was put aside. Picking Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson as a running mate helped. The ambitious Johnson as a congressional consensus-builder who almost single-handedly delivered Texas.
Still, the election of a 43-year-old Roman Catholic in a nation only five years removed from separate-but-equal racial segregation and under technological siege from the Soviet Union gave mid-century history a run for its money. Kennedy’s much-touted performance in the first televised debates only reinforced an intangible sense of confidence he purposely coupled with credible anti-communism. Communism was the terrorism of that time.
Kennedy’s kinetic abilities, similar to those now assigned to the well-spoken Obama, earned praise even among Europe’s more cautious statesmen, including France’s Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was impressed not just by Kennedy’s style (and his wife’s), but also by the American public’s unforeseen willingness to take a major risk, which differentiated American voters from those of “old Europe,” still in repetition’s thrall.
AMERICA’S NEXT ADVENTURE in risk-taking came 16 years later, and was no less dramatic.
In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency two years into his second term following his implication in the Watergate scandal — he had crushed Democrat George McGovern 1972. The disgrace was a pox on the Republican house. Matters deteriorated further when Nixon’s successor and former House speaker Gerald Ford issued a blanket pardon, suggesting the nation would be irrevocably harmed by prosecuting an ex-president.
Nixon’s immunity enraged the public, since several of his key lieutenants had been tried and convicted. In 1976, Ford faced the nearly-impossible task on neutralizing this rage and winning back Republican supporters.
His opponent was an obscure Georgia governor named James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, who still ranks among the most unlikely presidential candidates in modern history. The sum total of Carter’s governmental experience was the Georgia State Senate and four years in the governor’s mansion. Otherwise, he was a successful and God-fearing peanut farmer.
Ironically (given later criticisms of George W. Bush), Carter’s evangelical ties ensured his integrity. He was seen as clean man, a potential slate-wiping antidote to Nixon’s pathological predisposition to political deceit. Carter also benefited from television post-Watergate expansion. He won quirky appeal in urban centers, where any connection to Nixon was disparaged. “What Carter had that his opponents did not was the acceptance and support of elite sectors of the mass communications media,” the author Robert Shoup wrote in 1980. “It was their favorable coverage of Carter and his campaign that gave him an edge, propelling him rocket-like to the top of the opinion polls.”
Obama’s sizable leap still falls short of Carter’s. A Gallup poll in January 1976 gave Carter the support of four percent of Democrats. Many outside the party were unaware of his existence. In nine months he was president.
It wasn’t easy. The early pro-Carter mood shifted. Behind by 10 points September, Ford turned folksy and began whittling at the lead. His strength grew as his disassociation was Nixon grew. His numerous campaign gaffes (in the Sarah Palin mold) garnered gentle affection. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration,” Ford said in one debate. At the time, the Soviet Union controlled Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary. It had invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Carter by contrast ill-advisedly told a Playboy magazine interviewer he was guilty of “having committed adultery in my heart.” In the pre-Internet porn age, Playboy was the measure of mainstream licentiousness (with a vast subscriber list).
The interview was damaging but failed to undo Carter’s hold over the south. While Ford won Illinois and California, Carter captured every southern state east of Texas. Victories in Pennsylvania and New York gave him an slim triumph. Ford won 27 states to Carter’s 23, but lost the Electoral College, 297-240. Of 80 million votes cast, Carter won by just two million.
Despite his impressive comeback Ford was ultimately unable the undo a decade of accumulated public and press resentment toward Nixon, who in addition to his Watergate blunders had pledged and failed to end the Vietnam War swiftly. “I’ve never canceled a subscription to a newspaper because of bad cartoons or editorials.” Nixon once said. “If that were the case, I wouldn’t have any newspapers or magazines to read.”
Ford, like John McCain, faced the burden of a loathed president. And Ford, like McCain, also faced a recession. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 had produced gasoline lines not seen since World War II rationing. Gas station fist fights blighted the national landscape. Meanwhile, Japanese carmakers had begun challenging once pre-eminent position of the Detroit auto industry.
Carter not surprisingly won over nearly 60 percent of voters whose annual salary was less than $10,000, then little more than a subsistence wage. He also captured 82 percent of the black vote, which turned out in large numbers to support him. Writing about Carter, The New York Times‘ R.W. Apple used language that might now apply to Obama: “He understood the terrain, correctly calculated the intentions and weaknesses of his enemies, exploited his strengths to the fullest, cannily devised a strategy and tactics and chose the correct weapons.”
Once again, however, success was predicated in part on a sitting president’s blunders. Ford’s campaign recovery proved too little, too late. By the time Carter’s young team showed signs of weakness, election day dawned. Later, Ford would rue not having had two more weeks to campaign.
ANOTHER 16 YEARS passed before the United States again abruptly and dramatically shifted gears.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan’s centrist vice president, ran for his second term following a landslide victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. Bush won in spite of his running mate, a young and spirited Indiana congressmen named Dan Quayle with Sarah Palin-like characteristics. “The Holocaust,” Quayle declared in September 1988, “was an obscene period in our nation’s history. I mean in this century’s history. But we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century.” Quayle was immediately exiled to the outer fringes of the Bush Administration.
While “Desert Storm,” the successful U.S.-led intervention to free Iraq-occupied Kuwait, boosted Bush’s popularity, that was soon cancelled by faltering markets. The free-spending 1980s economy contracted. The federal budget deficit soared. In October 1987, the New York stock market lost a quarter of its value in a day, a steeper drop than any so far in 2008. Bush’s popularity slid as quickly as it had risen. His own personal wealth made him appear all the more disconnected from working class problems.
The Democrats meanwhile produced another governor, this time Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Folksy, clever, a new-age populist, he carved his political stake against the odds. Considered brilliant by admirers, a cunning philanderer and opportunist by critics, Clinton took advantage of a divided party to make his way up the ladder. The Democrats had not won the White House since Carter in 1976, their longest postwar exile.
The presidential race turned out to be marked departure from the norm. Texas billionaire Ross Perot joined the race as independent using the weak economy as leverage. In June 1992 he led the polls ahead of Clinton and Bush. Sounding similar to John McCain this year, Perot pummeled Washington, and by extension Bush Sr. He called it “a town filled with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything.” But erratic behavior marred Perot’s ascent. He quit the race in June only to return in October.
His fall comeback was marked by a slew of TV ads, making Perot the first candidate presidential to finance network appearances with his own cash. His campaign was a precursor to Obama’s privately-funded effort as well as his 30-minute aired in late October. Perot’s debate performances were uneven but further dented Bush’s presidential demeanor.
With Perot seeming to drain support from the major parties in equal measure, Clinton pressed ahead. He lambasted Bush on the economy, promoted welfare reform, and revived Democratic Party’s lapsed relationship with southern states. His fresh-faced look — Clinton was 46, Obama’s age, but looked younger — and verbal lucidity separated him from both the whiny Bush and the shrill Perot. In Clinton’s presence, Bush often found it difficult to articulate a clear mental picture of the future, which he mocked as “that vision thing.”
Clinton’s choice of respected Tennessee Democrat Al Gore as a running mate galvanized the ticket, in part compensating for talk about Clinton’s endless extramarital gallivanting. The Democratic candidates toured the United States by bus, gradually picking up additional support in the Midwest and Northeast. Clinton’s quip, “It’s the economy, stupid,” became a rallying cry in much the same way the economy was the somewhat darker focus in 2008.
In the end, Clinton won with ease, picking up 370 electoral votes to Bush’s 168. Perot, torpedoed by his “now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t” campaign nonetheless became the most successful third party candidate in American history. Thought he failed to win a state, he totaled nearly 20 million votes, slightly less than half of Clinton’s overall total. The Perot factor left Clinton only 43 percent of the popular vote, the lowest even by victorious presidential candidate.
As with Carter, a little-known southern governor had parried a sudden, mercurial into a successful presidential run. Clinton’s casual style, a mixed blessing while in office, set the tone for the more informal aspects of Obama’s campaign. While Kennedy and Carter (a former submarine officer) tended to respect formality, Clinton instead relaxed into the campaign and later into the Oval Office, reinvigorating the Washington scene. This casualness in all things would later lead to his undoing.
GORE’S OWN EFFORT to succeed Clinton in 2000 was beaten back, controversially, by yet another southern governor, George W. Bush, a Christian conservative who capitalized on Clinton’s moral shortcomings. Bush’s ultra-slim victory in Florida, which guaranteed him the electoral votes to win, is still debated fiercely nearly a decade later. Gore was further damaged by his decision to sever ties with the disgraced but still popular Clinton, who might well have played a deciding role in closely contested states.
Bush’s own administration also followed a predictable pattern, reaching highs following the September 11 terrorist attacks but dramatically falling out of favor when its central motivation for starting the war — the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — was debunked and the war itself bogged down. Like Ford and his father George Sr., the younger Bush also faced a sudden economic downturn.
By Bush’s seventh year in office his popularity was lower than any president in American history. At the same time, he would-be successor was not beloved by his party’s rank and file, which had adopted a new and fierce brand of conservatism. McCain, once a renegade centrist in his own party, found himself pitted against younger, more vibrant opponent and, like Nixon, Ford and Bush Sr. before him, lacked the leverage to pull off an upset.
The rest, as all are wont to say — indulging waves of emotion — is groundbreaking, historical, unprecedented. It’s history all right, no argument, but much of it has happened before.